Renters: How to Know If You’re Being Discriminated Against and What to Do About It
Discrimination may play a part in whether you are chosen as a tenant for a rental property. Learn how to spot landlord discrimination and what you can do about it to ensure your application receives fair treatment.
Welcome to The State of Rentals with Bob Vila, a series dedicated to showing both landlords and tenants the crucial steps in finding the right property, potential challenges with renting, precautions to protect your interests, and ideas for making the most of your next move. We’ve included current market trends mixed with Bob’s tried-and-true advice, our vetted shopping guides, and the behind-the-scenes tips you need to make your rental a home.
In the midst of a rental housing crisis, properties become flooded with tenancy applications. Finding the right home to rent is hard enough in the best of times, and landlords make you provide seemingly endless documentation to prove you are a responsible person. Even with impeccable credit, references, work history, and a security deposit, some applicants are disregarded due to discrimination.
Each year approximately 4 million people are victims of discrimination when they apply for rental property. The Fair Housing Act prevents discrimination in housing; landlords cannot deny renters because of race, religion, sex, nationality, familial status, or disability.
Here are 12 things to know about renter discrimination as you search for your next rental.
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1. Landlords look at your name.
When Shakespeare wrote, “What’s in a name?” he did not have renter discrimination in mind. Some landlords show their prejudice based on the name written on your application—it’s one way they racially profile you. Being denied a rental due to race is not allowed under the Fair Housing Act, as that is a protected class under the law.
Watch the ad if you apply for a rental and don’t hear back. If the property stays available for rent, you might be a victim of discrimination. It may be worth calling to find out why the landlord did not consider your application.
2. Having or wanting children may affect your chances.
Children can be noisy, but having a family should not automatically withdraw you from consideration or change your current rental situation. Renters may face discrimination when they add a new baby to the family or adopt a child. In some instances, landlords may attempt to evict you if your family grows, which is illegal. Landlords cannot discriminate against tenants with children under the age of 18.
Of course, there are rare situations where having a young family disqualifies you as a tenant—for example, buildings officially designated as senior or 55-plus housing.
3. Landlords do not need to know about your beliefs.
The Fair Housing Act also protects religion. A landlord cannot deny a rental due to your faith or lack thereof. In your rental application, landlords cannot ask about your religious affiliation; you have no obligation to answer this question. It is illegal for landlords to have a preference for religious groups.
4. Rental ads may indicate a landlord’s bias.
A rental ad is one of the first links between a potential landlord and a tenant. Read these ads carefully, and note red flags. A landlord cannot explicitly list preferences, limitations, or discriminations in their advertisements. These factors may include asking for a particular gender or religious affiliation.
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5. Landlords only have a say in regular domestic pets.
How many properties state “no pets” in their rental ad? Pets are a tricky situation. They’re part of the family, but landlords often decide whether they are allowed.
That said, The Fair Housing Act protects certain animals providing they do not create hardship for the landlord and other tenants. Refusing to rent to the owner of a registered Emotional Support Animal or Assistance Animal is discrimination if they are unwilling to make a reasonable accommodation request. If you have an assistance animal, you should provide the landlord with documentation from a licensed practitioner explaining the animal’s role.
6. The landlord can’t decide if a neighborhood is the right fit.
Historically, cities and larger centers have greater diversity than smaller towns. People may desire to live where they feel a sense of community and kinship—think of places like Chinatown or Little Italy.
Some landlords might say, “you won’t feel comfortable in this neighborhood,” to steer away tenants they don’t want. It’s a subtle (and not-so-subtle) way that landlords use language to keep people out of rentals, and it’s a discriminatory practice.
America is a diverse melting pot of people from all over the world, and you can live in whichever neighborhood you like. Landlords cannot determine that a neighborhood is an unfit place for people based on any protected classes in the Fair Housing Act.
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7. Gender is irrelevant for most rental applications.
If a landlord requests you to select a gender box on an application, you are usually under no obligation to include this information as it may play into gender bias. In most cases, landlords cannot request information on your gender or outline a specific gender they prefer to rent to in their listing.
There are currently a few exceptions to this rule. A rental home can outline a preferred gender for a renter if:
- The landlord lives in the home, and they are renting out a single room.
- The landlord shares a living space with the renters.
- It’s a single-sex dormitory at an educational institution.
8. Landlords must make reasonable accommodations.
Tenants cannot be discriminated against for having a disability and the reasonable accommodations they need for their living quarters. If a landlord refuses to rent to you based on a disability, you should file a complaint at a local, federal, or state level.
Your landlord must provide reasonable accommodations, such as safety or mobility devices (grab bars), or allow using a service animal. The cost of these accommodations may become the tenant’s responsibility. You may have to restore the property to its original state when you decide to move out.
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9. Beware of small talk.
Say you tour a rental home with a potential landlord. What comes across as getting-to-know-you small talk may be a way for the landlord to learn information about you. Not only is excessive questioning off-putting to a potential renter, but it also enables landlords to gain information about you that is irrelevant to your housing application.
They can ask questions regarding your work, income, who will be living in the unit, request permission for a credit check, or ask for references. They cannot ask you questions that might lead to discrimination, including if you’re pregnant or want more children, or your marital status, ethnicity, or any disabilities you may have.
Any questions determining if you will be a good tenant are fair game, but any that lead to discrimination aren’t okay.
10. Rental prices should be the same for every applicant.
Rental prices should be consistent regardless of who applies for the property. If a man calls the landlord and gets one price, and a woman contacts the same landlord and receives a higher price for the same unit, that is discrimination.
If you want to check whether discrimination is at play with a particular property, have a couple of people call to inquire about the rental and ask the same questions. If the home’s price, availability, or details are different, it may be evidence of renter discrimination.
11. Don’t be afraid of calling out discriminatory rental practices.
No renter should have to fear retaliation for reporting discrimination. If you see or experience prejudice in the rental process, don’t ignore it. You may worry that a landlord may cause you trouble for calling out their practices, but there are laws to protect you.
It is illegal for a landlord to retaliate against anyone for making a complaint, testifying, or assisting in an investigation. Discrimination complaints are investigated through the Office of Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity.
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12. What to do when faced with renter discrimination.
Millions of qualified applicants lose out on homes yearly due to intentional and unconscious landlord bias. If this happens, file a report through the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).
You can file online, by email, phone, or by mail. You need to provide your name and address, the name and address of the person or organization you’re complaining against, the address involved, the date the event occurred, and a short description of what happened.
It is always best to report these incidents, since it creates a written record of problematic practices and holds discriminatory landlords accountable.